Gripping their harness tightly, I try with all my might to stop the eager pack of husky dogs from tearing loose.

But not even a fleet of armoured tanks could halt these powerful animals and dampen their desire to run.

Barking, wailing and howling impatiently, eight packs of dogs are raring to take their, understandably nervous, passengers on a ride through remote Arctic valleys.

But as the noise reaches a crescendo, the starting signal is given, blissful silence falls and the magic of this wild and other-worldly landscape takes hold. Lying 819 miles from the North Pole, Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen which is part of Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, is one of the northernmost settlements in the world.

The former mining town already attracts tourists during the summer season, many hoping to catch a glimpse of the fierce but irresistibly enigmatic polar bear. But now visitors are coming specifically for the winter months, to experience adventurous activities such as dog sledding, ice caving and snowmobile rides through the Arctic Desert.

Thanks to the warmer influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is "mild" enough to make visits possible throughout the coldest periods.

It’s minus 20C during my early March visit, including a dog sledding adventure with the Green Dog yard in Bolterdalen, ten minutes outside Longyearbyen.

As night falls, along with the temperature, owners Claire and Martin invite us into their traditional trappers’ hut to warm up in front of a crackling fire with a traditional Arctic meal.

Inside the cosy hut a muskox hide hangs from one wall, while the jaw bone of a polar bear is less a hunting trophy and more a reminder of the harsh and hostile environment we're in.

As minke whale and reindeer are cooked on hot slates at our table, guide Anneka explains why she turned her back on her homeland, Australia, to live here.

There are 41 different nationalities residing in Longyearbyen, quite impressive for a town with a population of 2,000. Many are attracted by high salaries in the mining industry and the archipelago’s duty-free status. But others have been seduced by Svalbard's exotic beauty; being one of the few places where nature still holds the reins.

“For me it's the extremes of light,” says Anneka. “The polar nights are some of my favourites, and we know there are always longer days to look forward to.”

It's the advent of these longer days that we’re here to celebrate. Our visit coincides with Longyearbyen's return of the sun festival, which takes place on March 8 each year.

I’m told the festival commemorates the moment when rays finally stretch above the mountains and strike the old hospital stairs, one of the town’s few historical monuments.

Walking past semi-frozen fjords, where pancake ice floats in the viscous water and wisps of swirling vapour rise into the air, we climb the slippery path to the stairs. Groups of young children in thermal suits and ski goggles wear collars shaped like sun rays, some carrying bright solar-themed banners. But despite singsongs, a TV crew and a speech from the mayor, the sun fails to turn up to the party at 12.18 – as it has done, with only a couple of exceptions, for the past 15 years.

Wolfing down doughnuts and waffles afterwards no one seems particularly perturbed.

With only 46km of road, the best way to explore the wilderness is on skis. Spitsbergen Travel organises snowmobile safaris through the Arctic Desert, a vast, dry, icy expanse that forms the second largest desert in the world (after Antarctica).

We plough through pristine snow, taking paths that appear totally untouched. As ice flakes gather on my eyelashes, I squeeze my cheeks to avoid frostbite from the blistering wind.

A scattering of Svalbard reindeer on the horizon are the only forms of life. Some 60 per cent of Svalbard is glacial and, during winter months, its possible to go caving into ice chambers below Longyear glacier.

While wondering if warmth will ever return to my toes, I’m bundled into the back of a snowcat, a windowless sardine tin on caterpillar treads, which hulks and bumps up the side of a mountain.

Every year, scientists bore a tunnel into this 200-year-old glacier. Kitted out with crampons and a hard hat, I enter an igloo to find the cave entrance – a gap the size of a manhole that descends into darkness. Using a rope I lower myself into the frozen chamber, where rocks and debris from the mountain appear encased in clear glass cabinets.

In places the ice has formed tubular bells, which chime different notes as I brush past. Armed with drum sticks, one band even came to play music down here, our guide informs us.

  • Sarah was a guest of Hurtigruten (0203 5826 642; who offer two, three and four-night land-based breaks in Spitsbergen in March, May, October and December. A two-night stay in March starts from £811pp, including accommodation and excursions. Flights can be booked via Hurtigruten.